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Tales of Tanzania Part 2

Thursday, 24 November 2016
Jonathan Purnell
Tales of Tanzania Part 2

"If you read my last instalment, you might have been expecting an update every two weeks and I apologise for the delay. Here is my second (and final) instalment."

If you read my last instalment, you might have been expecting an update every two weeks and I apologise for the delay. Here is my second (and final) instalment which I’m writing from my cubicle on the fourth floor of the Johannesburg office after being far too distracted by Tanzania to have written any in between.

Since my last update I have lived through all the tropical seasons on offer out here: the scorching hot but dripping humid dry season and the drowning wet but still surprisingly hot rainy season. Yes, there are only two seasons but it wasn’t too easy to differentiate the two this year as the ‘big rains’ everyone warned me about only lasted about three weeks. In actual fact, the rains weren’t even big enough to keep me from walking to the office on some mornings. Before the rains came, Dar turned into a big, sweaty oven as temperatures rose to almost 40 degrees which, when combined with the humidity, kicked up the relative temperature to the high 40s and even low 50s. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of going outside during those days but laundry waits for no man and I turned from a pale office-worker to the human torch in about twenty minutes of hanging wet clothes on the line. After the raging heat wave of February and May, intermittent rains started coming through to cool things off and around mid-April, the heavens opened. Though the rains weren’t too intense in Masaki (the section of Dar which I called home), it seems like other areas of the city took a much harder hit. It was during these times that I most appreciated South Africa’s infrastructure as Dar es Salaam’s drainage systems just aren’t geared to handle this much water. Entire sections of the city were under a hefty layer of water and, in the most affected areas, people resorted to dingies and rowing boats to get around. The sky was usually hidden by clouds and the sun would pop out between the storms as a reminder of the tropical paradise that we had inhabited just a few weeks earlier. But, luckily for me, the rains had cleared in under a month and when the sun returned, it was a little more considerate as the temperatures dropped to a more bearable range. And I definitely took advantage of that weather!

To help me with this advantage-taking, my girlfriend came through to join me for about two months as she could do her work remotely. So we took it upon ourselves to go exploring as often as possible which led us to some pretty amazing places.

One of our favourite destinations was an island just off the coast of Mbezi beach (a beach North of Dar), Mbudya. This was a little piece of paradise with startlingly clear blue waters, white sand beaches and a little baobab forest. We caught the ferry and spent our day relaxing in a shady spot on the beach with the occasional swim in the ocean or meander through the undergrowth. Though our ferry broke down on the way back to the mainland (pretty much everyone rushed for a life vest and feverishly sent prayers to the heavens) and we spent the first few hours of the evening drifting about the ocean, it was still such an amazing way to spend a day!

I also managed to get my scuba certification while I was there so I had a few dives around one of the other nearby islands, Bongoyo. Anyone that knows me will remember that I’m not exactly skilled in the water nor do I particularly like the sea or swimming so my decision to get my scuba licence was surprising even to me. During our first training dives (which were in a nearby hotel pool in which I could stand quite comfortably), I struggled to get to grips with the sensation of breathing underwater because it really was unnatural to be able to fill your lungs when you feel the pressure of the water surrounding you. But, once we entered the ocean, it really wasn’t an issue because I had much more to worry about! Fish, eels, lobsters and coral all lurk in the depths and it can be pretty unnerving to begin with but, if you’ve never been scuba diving, it’s something I would definitely recommend! As someone who had always wanted to be an astronaut, I was dumbfounded by the feeling of weightlessness you get underwater as you glide your way above a completely alien world. I wish I had some decent photos to show you because it truly is another planet down on those coral reefs; I couldn’t even explain the weird and wonderful fish, plants, corals and all those other things I saw down there.

Now my tales of Tanzania would definitely not be complete without talking Zanzibar! This island nation is part of the United Republic of Tanzania but is essentially independent as it has its own government, parliament and judiciary. The island has a population of about 1.3 million people. The island is the third largest exporter of cloves in the world and produces a large variety of spices but I was told by a particularly proud local that they’re also quite a successful dugout canoe exporter though I’d take that with a pinch of saffron. But regardless of its exports, it is obvious that the island survives on tourism so, to do our bit for the Zanzibari people (and because it was my birthday), my girlfriend and I decided to go spend a bit of time on the island.

We spent our first two nights in Stone Town, the old quarter of the Zanzibari capital, Zanzibar Town. This world heritage site is a truly mysterious town composed of winding streets that form a tight labyrinth of narrow passages. Many people say that you’ll get yourself lost in seconds while ambling through those corridors but I stubbornly disbelieved them. At least I can say that it took me about 20 minutes before I had lost all sense of direction (and another 40 to find my way back to a familiar landmark with hundreds of I-told-you-sos from my ever-supportive girlfriend). We saw ornate Zanzibari doors (which, according to custom are erected before the building itself), little hidden shisha lounges and more restaurants, bars and hotels than you could ever imagine. We also took the opportunity to be a little touristy and had an amble through two of their two museums (we avoided the third which was held together by wooden scaffolding and steel cables because a bit of rain had destabilised its foundations) and found all the little bits of history like the old slave market, cathedrals built in the late 1800’s and signs of its two eras of colonisation by the Germans and then the British. And even though the streets are narrow, it doesn’t mean that they’re a pedestrian paradise as you’re constantly dodging scooters, motorbikes and overzealous salesmen as you wind further and further away from your intended destination and deeper into the ancient memories which line the walls.

My birthday arrived while we were still in Stone Town and, in a particularly mild celebration, we decided to see if we could find a decent beach near the old town. So, with little planning, we found the sea and turned left to follow the coast South on a blind adventure along the beach. After my girlfriend fell into what seemed like quick sand (which put me into hysterics and my girlfriend into a panicked fit), passing through a number of cat infested fishing villages (seriously… I think I saw more cats on that beach in Zanzibar than I have in my entire time in Tanzania), and about two hours of beach-bound walking, we came across a wood and thatched hotel standing on its own on the coast. We had already opened our first beers by the time a raging storm broke out so we decided to get some lunch and relaxed our way through the tempest. Amazingly, two fishermen on a trusty Zanzibari dugout canoe (one which had obviously not been earmarked for export) seemed not to notice the torrential downpour and calmly continued their business amid the mountainous waves, checking through their nets for the day’s catch. Once the weather had cleared up, we were happily full of food and drink and made our slow way back to Stone Town to get lost in its enigmatic histories.

But what would a trip to Zanzibar be without a little taste of their world-renowned beaches? My girlfriend took it upon herself to find us a dala dala that would take us to Kiwengwa, one of the beaches on the Eastern coast of the island, where we made use of the off-season prices. Now, just in case you don’t know, a dala dala in Tanzania is a public bus but on Zanzibar, dala dalas are more similar to those small cattle trucks you often see in the Midlands of KZN. But instead of filling the back with three or four pigs, these could easily hold over 20 people at once (though at least eight of those would be hanging from the back). So, for about R9, we headed out across the island. Our route would usually take a car about 50 minutes but our faithful dala dala took us about two hours due to frequent stops as more and more people boarded with very few getting off. Eventually we arrived at our stop and managed to extricate ourselves from the back of the cattle truck. With our legs like jelly and covered in sweat (not necessarily just our own), we found our way down to the backpackers on the beachside. Honestly, the beaches looked as if they had been pulled from the pages of travel magazines. Palm trees, blue waters, white sands and the perfect weather; we were in paradise and made sure that we spent as much time as we could on the beach and even more relaxing around it. We soon found out that the room we had been given didn’t have any electricity but it wasn’t a problem as we enjoyed a night filled with mosquitos by candlelight, wine from Dodoma and the hostel’s resident bushbaby coming through to grab some fruit which had been left lying about.

Despite how much I love Dar es Salaam, it was still very difficult to leave Zanzibar. I had just gotten used to the slow-paced, island life but that all disappeared after the 20 minute flight back to the Mainland.

After all that, life continued as usual in Dar. I had regular walks around Masaki and the other nearby areas where I found amazing cliffs which overlooked the sea, cheap beachside beers and a whole bunch of interesting conversations with anyone who’d have a chat. Work remained fairly constant as we toiled our way through a few due diligences and handled the financing side of many transactions on pretty massive projects all through East Africa. But eventually it all came to an end and I had to start preparing myself for the trip back to my old home in Johannesburg.

The goodbyes were difficult because I had made some amazing friends out there in East Africa and knowing that there was a chance I wouldn’t be seeing them again made me feel like it might be worth staying in Dar and waving goodbye to the hurly burly Joburg lifestyle. But, after all the hugs and handshakes, I headed out to the airport. I sat down to a ‘steak’ sandwich (essentially a steak shaped hamburger) and waited patiently for my plane while running through my last 6 months of memories and experiences I had had out there. Once again, I expertly used the four hour plane trip as an opportunity to sleep off the previous night’s farewells only waking to catch something which resembled food and the evening descent into the glimmering metropolis of Johannesburg.

And then there was the weird feeling of being back in a place which hadn’t really changed despite how much I had. I found that everything felt so familiar yet strangely alien to me. The sheer size of the airport and the dizzying order and efficiency of everything made me feel like I’d stepped into some European country. The convenience of the Gautrain and the exacting punctuality of Sandton meant that I was already in my apartment within an hour and a half of landing. It was surreal to think that I had been in Dar es Salaam less than 6 hours before and that I had been away from ‘home’ for over 6 months. Sandton is still a construction site, everyone is in some kind of a rush to get somewhere, there’s still an unreasonable number of malls about town and it’s still a massive place; how could it still be so unchanged after all of this time? This was especially baffling to me as, despite the lack of change, everything has an edge of unfamiliarity and my simple life in Dar es Salaam seemed to be a comfort that I wouldn’t find out here.

Despite the strange, alien feeling of being back, it didn’t stop me from enjoying all the things I had missed while away. The best were the tiny details which we take for granted in Johannesburg like drinking water straight from a tap, eating cheese that doesn’t cost most of one’s monthly income and knowing that the electricity would be on all night (closely followed by a McDonalds double quarter pounder with cheese and a large strawberry milkshake). The more unpleasant realisations were that I’d have no more walking to work or casual strolls of exploration and the fact that I would no longer have an amazing sea view from the office window. I found that driving my car after six months of avoiding the drivers’ seat wasn’t an issue but my understanding of how the roads work had changed drastically. On the short drive from the Gautrain station to my apartment, I had a few minor heart attacks whenever I saw someone edging onto the road because I expected them to shoot into the gap in usual daredevil Tanzanian fashion. But after being sent on a mad rush to Pretoria on my first day back, I feel like I’ve acclimatised to the order and predictability of the Gauteng roads.

My return to the office has actually been the strangest experience of them all as I’ve gone from a small team of under 10 lawyers to the full 8 floors of 15 Alice Lane and the madness which comes with it. I now get my lunch from a well-stocked canteen rather than our trusty chipsi vendor down the road; I now need to dial through to my colleagues to chat rather than just shout obscenities around my cubicle wall and I’m now wearing my full suit every day which had only happened once throughout my entire 6 months away. Worst of all is that I’ve found myself wondering which I prefer but I just can’t come to a conclusion. I’ve loved the simple life I had in Dar es Salaam and all the little interesting tendencies that came with it though I found myself being frustrated whenever delays or inefficiencies prevented me from achieving what I’d intended. I also always loved my life in Johannesburg which was always filled with an exciting rush and boundless opportunity but I often withdrew from it to get a break from the madness. Each city has its own character, its own beauty and blisters and I’ve been so lucky to have learnt about the both of them.

But even though I’ve learnt an astounding amount about Tanzania and life outside of South Africa, I’ve learnt the most about myself. I have found renewed self-reliance and reinforced my trust in myself and my ability to adapt and connect with the people and places which surround me. I’ve brought back my love for adventure that had waned in my first year in the office and have boosted my desire to explore the rest of this wonderful continent. I have realised now, more than ever before, that I am truly African and that my life is tightly wound in the fibres of this land; my identity is made up of my experiences here and the people who have participated in my life and there is no way to see myself without seeing South Africa’s influence.

My life abroad has rekindled a national pride that so many South Africans are too quick to cast aside. With every fantastic experience I had in Tanzania and with every drop of love I felt for that country, I realised that my feelings for my home nation softened and then blossomed. Nothing in this country to ever make me doubt my love for South Africa or to push me to immigration; we all need to stop and appreciate how truly blessed we are down here and remember that our petty complaints are unnecessary in the face of the potential which this country holds.

Well, I hope that I haven’t brought too existential/controversial an ending to all of this and that I’ve done a decent job of recording a bit of my experiences of Tanzania. If anyone wants to find out a little bit more about anything, please get in touch as I’m far too fond of conversation to turn anyone away. I wish luck to anyone applying for one of these ISPs and hope that those who follow me to Tanzania enjoy their experience as much as I have and also improve their understanding of the world and how they fit into it.

Kwaheri marafiki zangu; until we meet again.


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